4 Pak Fighter Jets, But an Indian Air Force Hero Won the Day

4 Pak Fighter Jets, But an Indian Air Force Hero Won the Day

As the enemy and he both manouevered for a kill, the 25-year-old pilot was forced to fly as low as 50 feet off the ground at speeds approaching 740 kilometres per hour. He had only his wingman for support.

They were up against four US built Pakistani Air Force Sabre fighters over the skies of Kalaikunda air base in West Bengal.  

Heavily outnumbered, the Indian Air Force duo, who had been called in to intercept the Sabres, were fighting for their lives.  

But within 12 minutes of engaging the enemy fighters, it was clear that in September 1965, the Indian Air Force had found itself a new hero - the lead pilot in the two aircraft formation - Flight Lieutenant Alfred Cooke, an Anglo Indian pilot of the IAF's 14 Squadron.

Ably backed by his wing man, Flying Officer SC Mamgain, Cooke went head-on towards the Pakistanis in what has come to be described as one of the greatest aerial dogfights ever in the jet era. His first adversary - Flight Lieutenant Afzal Khan, a young Pakistani Sabre pilot had clearly met his match.

Flight Lieutenant Alfred Cooke with Flying Officer SC Mamgain (Left)

As both fighters tried to get each other in their gunsights, the dogfight descended to a death-defying 50 feet with Cooke's jet so low that at one stage, his wing actually made contact with the scrub he was flying over.  

"I was very low and when I saw him that time, I had my gun set on him and I just pressed on with the attack not knowing that my wing tip was hitting the scrub at that stage, the small bushes, which were about four or five feet high. I was so close that when I hit him and stopped firing, the aircraft exploded, and I could not help flying through the fireball.

Flight Lieutenant Alfred Cooke's first dogfight was Pakistani Sabre pilot Flight Lieutenant Afzal Khan, whom he shot down while flying 50 feet above the ground.

The mangled remains of the Pakistani Sabre were found outside the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, with several students witnessing this fight to the death.

Time to take on the second Sabre. "I could not savour that moment, because I knew that somebody else was after me. So, I had to turn up, turn hard right, pull up and engage the other aircraft," recalled Cooke, now 75.

Cooke describes his dogfight with the second Pak Sabre as "intense." In fact, in the classic turning fight that ensued, Cooke got within a few feet of the Pakistani fighter; the danger of a mid-air collision was very real. "We were crossing so close to each other we could see each other's faces," said Cooke, on a short visit to Delhi from Australia, where he moved four years after the 65 war ended.

"I could see his face, and he could see my face, and I could see his helmet - a white helmet which had his name on it - and I had a white helmet with my name on it as well. I pulled up very steep and made use of a good position I was in and started firing once I got my gun sight on him. And I knew I was hitting him, and I was expecting him to explode."  

But that didn't happen. Cooke had expended his quota of high-explosive ammunition and all he was left with was ball-ammunition used primarily for training missions. And so, the Pakistani Sabre kept flying even though Cooke was actually hitting it and parts of the jet were disintegrating. 

It was here that Cooke decided to stop pursuing the second Sabre which eventually escaped back to its base and is thought to have never flown again because of the damage it sustained.  

Flight Lieutenant Alfred Cooke describes his dogfight with the second Pak Sabre, thought to have been piloted by Flight Lieutenant Tariq Habib Khan, as being "intense". He remembers that his adversary wore a white helmet with his name on it, just like Cooke's own helmet.

"He was diving away from me and then I suddenly noticed that he had increased the angle of dive and the bank away from me. So, I said, somebody has warned him, so, the person has to be behind me."

With air battles relatively rare post the Second World War, very few pilots actually get into a single dogfight in their entire career. Cooke was about to engage his third in a single day, and it wouldn't be his last.

Alert to the third Pakistani Sabre behind him, Cooke jostled for position in the skies over West Bengal. He would need to turn hard and use the Hunter's superior engine thrust to be able to get behind the enemy Sabre.

"I was vertically going down firing at him and I was wondering why I was not hitting him, why is he not exploding? His aircraft pulled away and I was still worried about why he hadn't been hit. So, then, I suddenly realized that the ground had come up pretty fast. And with my fingers still on the trigger, I pulled back on the joystick, and unfortunately I expended whatever ammunition I had left, because on the Hunter we only have about five seconds' firing time. And you are firing at around a hundred rounds per second. So, I expended my ammunition while pulling out of the dive and I almost hit the ground."

After using his Hunter's superior engine to get behind the third Sabre, Flight Lieutenant Alfred Cooke used up all his ammunition on the Pakistani fighter jet, before pulling away from a steep dive to avoid hitting the ground.

The third Pakistani Sabre managed to escape and it would have been perfectly acceptable for Cooke to call it a day since he had no ammunition left, but air combat is all about keeping an eye on your wingman.

Flying Officer SC Mamgain was in mortal danger now, a Sabre behind him. But Cooke was alert to all that was happening. "I gave Mamgain a warning. I said 'Mam' break port [turn hard left]. And then I engaged this guy and this was right over the airfield right over the flying control. He started doing loops and aerobatics to try and shake me off. And at this stage, my aircraft was light, and aerobatics and things were what we used to do for fun. So, I had no problem staying behind him."

But Cooke couldn't shoot down the Pakistani. He didn't have a single round of ammunition left.  Instead, he got behind the Pakistani Sabre, often in perfect firing position and chased the intruder out of India.

With no ammunition and a lighter aircraft, Flight Lieutenant Alfred Cooke went to Flying Officer Mamgain's help, and chased the fourth Sabre out of Indian airspace.

Smiling at the memory of his final encounter, Cooke, who is back in India to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 war, says of the Pakistani pilot, "He obviously realized that it's his lucky day."

Flight Lieutenant Alfred Cooke receiving his Vir Chakra from President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Both Cooke and Mamgain went on to be awarded Vir Chakras. Cooke would fly fighters for only a few more years before leaving for Australia, and although he did try his hand at flying small civilian aircraft, it was never the same as being at the controls of a Hawker Hunter, flying 740 kilometres per hour, ten feet off the earth.

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